Axe - a tool without which it is difficult , and often simply impossible to do

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     Alexander Lopukhov

   Reflections on an axe

     An axe- is an instrument, and sometimes it almost impossible to do without it. Unaware people would think that there is nothing ingenious in it, an axe is still an axe, and so did I 6-7 years ago.  Much water has flown under the bridge, and I have tested many axes, but the search is still underway to find the best handy axe.

      An axe- is an instrument, and sometimes it almost impossible to do without it.

      An axe- is an instrument, and sometimes it almost impossible to do without it. Unaware people would think that there is nothing ingenious in it, an axe is still an axe, and so did I 6-7 years ago.  Much water has flown under the bridge, and I have tested many axes, but the search is still underway to find the best handy axe.

     Axes can be professional and household and are categorized into carpenter’s, joiner’s, butcher’s, splitting mauls and for out-door enthusiasts. They differ from each other in the head geometry and the head weight (metallic part) and the handle geometry and the handle length (wooden part). To tell the truth we have to include the handle material which can be made from modern composite ones.

     Before buying an axe we have to clearly determine its intended use i.e. what primary purpose you are going to use this axe for and what other purposes it can be of use. It is obvious that you can chop kindling for a BBQ grill with a heavy butcher’s axe with a short handle axe but will it be easy? Definitely no. Therefore we have to clearly assign our task: what, where and when.

      So let us begin. I live in a city and have long been a fishing and hunting enthusiast (not my trade), I have several small cottages or to be precise garden plots. I love to spend time in forests or near lakes during hunting off-season and to hide away from the hustle and bustle of the city life. In summer I like cookingBBQ with my friends and in autumn to harvest birch wart for artistic engravings or for knife handles. The first time I needed an axe was while hunting to butcher a boar. At that hunt were connoisseurs only present with beautiful expensive guns, sophisticated Damascus and bulat steel knives with rich equipment. But as a matter of fact none of them had a simple working axe. We were lucky a huntsman brought his own axe. After that hunt did I suddenly think that it would be nice to have a light and sharp axe preferably with a plastic handle so it could be cleaned easily after butchering. That’s how I got an outdoor enthusiast Fiskars axe. Fiskars Company (named after a similar called town in Finland) manufactures a wide range of products: knives, scissors, axe, spades, gardening tools etc. It has been on the Russian market since 1994.

      What does this instrument look like? A plastic handle holds the axe from the outside. The axe itself is Teflon coated with the head weight of 600 g It is corrosion-resistant and does not get stuck in timber.

      The guarantee warranty is 10 years. It looks like a perfect instrument. Yes, for butchering a boar. It is light, sharp in a Cordura case to prevent accidental damage, easy to clean, and safe. So was my verdict after the first acquaintance. I got what I had wanted. However a certain accident occurred to change my opinion about it. While hunting for a woodcock in spring my son and I were at the hunt while a good friend of mine Viktor was preparing our meals and decided to chop dry boughs for a fire. A 4 inch thick bough was placed across another bough and while holding it with his left hand he swung the axe. Then the plastic handle recoiled against the boughs and he nearly chopped his left hand off. Sinews were badly injured and he had to be on a sick leave for two months. After 6 months of intensive training he recovered the moving functions of his hand. Could be worse. Further investigation of the axe revealed that vibrations of the hollow plastic axe occurred. How could we remedy that? It turned out to be fairly simple, you had to wrap the handle with a black fabric tape that electricians used. After that the vibrations were damped and hand control was improved even when wet. My conclusion is as follows: this axe can be used for butchering animals even though you’d need a harder blade, and it is perfect after certain modifications for hiking and out-door enthusiasts where total weight is decisive. It is not suitable for chopping wood you have to make a lot of effort due to the small weight.   

      After that accident I began searching a similar axe but more reliable one.

      Fig. 1 Black fabric tape to reduce vibrations

      Fig. 2 Bahco HUP-0,6-380 .Chopping kindling for a BBQ is absolute pleasure; however chopping bigger stumps requires much effort

      I came across a Bahco HUP-0,6-380 Professional axe made in Sweden. There are only two types of axes on Russian market:”Standard” and PRO. The shape is similar, except for the steel, the hardness and the handle material. I tried a standard series model and I liked but I need a harder blade. Standard model was equipped with 52-54HRC blade which becomes dull pretty quick. I bought a PRO series axe. The quality is superb; the handle is made from American maple, extremely ergonomic in shape and dampens vibrations when chopping. The head shape is Canadian. Hardness is 56-58 HRC. The head is fixed to the handle with a plastic wedge. One drawback though – it is not equipped with a blade-protective case. I made a light leather case with holes for straps myself. Chopping kindling for a BBQ is absolute pleasure; however chopping bigger 5 inch thick stumps requires much effort. The axe is too light for this job it is 600 g only.

     Once I happened to be fishing for two weeks. Then I realized that I needed a heavy axe and I began searching.  I did not want to buy a Fiskars because first it is rather expensive and the accident with Viktor undermined my trust in them even though they are very ergonomical. I decided to try out a Bahco French Hatchet HFGPS-0,7-400FG. Head weight is 960 g, the handle is made from the orange plastic with polypropylene coating and non-slip rubber inserts. The blade shape resembled an Indian tomahawk. I think it is the shape that appealed to me thanks to my childhood memories about the movies with Indians. However these are all of the advantages. Indeed, the handle does not slip in your hand even if it is wet, but you experience the same recoil when chopping solid objects as with the Fiskars. A straight handle does not allow for a precise powerful strike. It can handle small pine billets but its bite is weak even for wet wood being well sharpened. It breaks dry wood with its weight, does not chop it. To cut it short the hatchet did not make a favorable impression.  The next axe which I tried was “Olen (Deer)” by “Trud” factory located in Vachinsk. The factory was founded in 1830 as a workshop to manufacture bread knives. It successfully developed expanded its product range and in 19th century it gained both international and national acclaim. At the late 19th century as a result of high products quality it received a number of awards including Grand Golden Award at International Exhibition in Paris in 1889.

     Original shape resembling an ancient Russian axe which you can see in museums, affordable price, and weight of 800 g. However that was all. The quality was utterly unacceptable. I understand that it costs 3-4 times less that the Bahco or the Fiskars, but doesn’t the manufacturer feel any twinge of conscience for this poor quality? These are all emotions but here are the facts.

      Fig. 3 Bahco HFGPS-0.7-400FG.  The handle is made from the orange plastic. There’s nothing more I can add.

     The head is fixed loose on the handle and this fact alone does not meet any personal safety requirements. The handle surface is rough and full of splinters to sting in your hand; Sharp blade? Forget it. Well, Russian products have always implied a DIY principle. I hammered another wedge in the head, dipped the whole axe into epoxy resin, smoothed the handle with sandpaper, covered it with acrylic polish and sharpened with a grinder. The axe shone with perfection. However it did not become a proper one. You can gently chop shoot though. I completely failed to chop wood! The thin blade bites into the wood and then it gets stuck. No play. Then I tried to chop a shank. Well, I could not. The way the blade was sharpened clearly indicated that it was not cut out for this job. The chopping edge bent right away. You are at liberty to contradict me and argue that the sharpening angle is not intended for this job. I will discuss the issue later with another axe as an example. After a few weekends of suffering in my garage, I decided to put this axe into storage for indefinite period in my garage. My conclusion: the axe must be heavier with higher hardness and optimal geometry, I would also like it to do well both things chop and split.

     After a continuous search I came to the market. And there I found my pride and joy. A 1978 carpenter axe in perfect condition, lubricated, and wrapped into the original oil-cloth paper. There was a year and a steel brand У8 which allows tempering to 63 HRC. Approximate hardness: 57-58 HRC, weight: 1800 g and a modern ergonomic maple handle, of course. The price equaled the price of the Fiskars. With my new purchase I returned to my garage, removed the lubricant, sharpened with a grinder, having formed and lenticularly rounded the angle beforehand. I polished the handle and cover it with antiseptic polish. The axe was ready. That axe proved to be a very good bargain. With the sharpening angle of 23 degrees and lenticularly rounded edge it is ideal to chop and split both wet and dry wood. And you begin to ponder was everything really that bad in the USSR that no longer exists? The axe is 31 years old and production-wise and quality-wise it can outscore many modern not only Russian axes but also foreign ones. During use I found out a curious fact. When knocking your nail against the edge you can hear a familiar buzz. It turned out to be 440Hz, the A note. The same note that a pitch-fork generates. Now I have an axe to chop and something to tune my guitar with. 

     By the time I was finishing testing I came across two more axes which I could not ignore. They were very different. An axe made by “Izhstal-TNP” from 60Г steel and a single copy, hand-forged axe “Plotnik” made by an expert A.F. Vereskunov (“Sibirskiy bulat”).

      Fig. 4 The 1978 Soviet axe can recall warm memories about the good old reliable things. This veteran can outscore many modern instruments including foreign ones.

     First I would like to talk about the “Izhstal-TNP”axe. The steel used is 60 Г, the one that is used in springs, shock absorbers and other parts that require high resilience qualities and high wear-resistance. Total weight: 1100 g Hardness: 60 HRC. If you read through a steel rating table everything looks nice. However, the manufacturing quality was poor. The head is not parallel to the handle. In other words the axe is curved, bear in mind I chose this one out of four others. There are chips at the back of the head so you risk injuring your hand. The blade is not simply unsharpened it is 3 mm dull at the edge. I was not that pessimistic about the head play and the dull blade at the shop I thought I would bring it up to the level. When I came to my garage I realized how mistaken I was. Blade hardening and its wear-resistance do not allow sharpening it with a household grinder. Thanks to my friend he sharpened the cutting edge to the level with an industrial grinder. After examining Vereskunov axe system I assembled my axe similarly with oak wedges and special glue. Then I smoothed the handle and coated it with special polish.

     Fig.5 Axe “Izhstal-TNP” after factory modifications. What do other people have to do if they don’t have this opportunity?

     Fig.6 “Plotnik” can be termed an all-purpose practical axe

     Fig.7 After one month of intensive use the blade is sharp as ever

     Fig.8 “Plotnik” axe. The head is joined to the handle with five oak wedges dipped in special water-resistance substance.

     Having modified the axe I began thinking if it was really necessary to buy a new thing and then bringing it up to the level? And if I had no friends to help it would be nightmare. After that I tested the axe by Alexander Verskunov. It was brilliant. I understand that series production and limited production cannot be compared. Alexander Vereskunov is a very interesting craftsman and his products are so unique that I would like to devote a whole new article to him.

     So, a “Plotnik” axe by A.Vereskunov from “Sibirskiy bulat” is forged, the central plate is 60 HRC, cheeks are from softer steel, monolithic structure is achieved through hammer welding. The head shape is ancient Russian with grooving to reduce weight and metal strain. The handle is made from mature Amur oak dipped in special substance and boiled in oil. Anyway, as specifications said, the smell reminded me of bee wax (I applied the same technique myself when crafting birch knife handles).

     Fig. 9 “Plotnik ” is equipped with a practical case

     Fig. 10 The best choice for out-doors enthusiasts. A “Plotnik” axe anda Fiskars folding saw

     The handle shape is Dutch and curved. At first the handle seemed a little thick to me but then I got used to it and even liked it. The cross section includes a considerable wedge which allows chopping small pine wood easily. Due to blade angle-to-handle curve alignment the axe bites deeper and more aggressive into the wood. The Cordura case compliments the axe with soft lining and double strap overlap and also a blade sheath. In a word– it is very practical. One remark though I think that the axe needs slag removing after forging. Of course bits of slag look really traditional and speak of hand-made production. But when it is wet or cold and you carry an axe from warm into cold environment the rust formation occur under the bits of slag. Of course the slag falls during intensive use, but I removed it myself and wiped the axe with neutral gun oil.  

      The filing angle is dual. First a sharp angle forms the working area then a duller angle forms the bit. Thus a compromise is achieved between the bite depth and blade durability. Nor shall we forget about the special steel the axe is made of. The head is joined with the handle not with a standard metallic wedge, but with five water-resistant oak wedges. The axe does not need sharpening and it is ready for use. Of course I could not refrain from the temptation to sharp the blade with a Japanese 6000 grain grindstone and paid the price with a bleeding finger. With the weight of 1350 g this axe can be termed an all-purpose instrument. The complete axe design radiates with reliability, confidence and equanimity.

     I would like to summarize above-said statements, at present I have four axes that I constantly but very specifically use. For foot hunting, kayaking and where the weight is decisive I choose a Fiskars 600 g axe but as I have previously said with a black fabric tape on the handle. In my car I have a Bahco 600 g with a wooden handle; it is practical for outdoor activities. For winter hunting I bring “Plotnik” however this axe is so practical that ousts all others, for practicality and reliability are prerequisite for safety. And finally a heavy 1978 Soviet 1800 g axe which is practical everywhere whether for yard or hunting where a heavy axe is needed.

     In conclusion I would like to say that my search for the perfect axe has not finished. Recently I have read a pre-1956 Soviet standard on axe that stipulates tighter requirements. The service period for soft wood is 30 000 m3, for medium wood – 25 000 m3, for hard wood- 20 000 m3, for harvesting soft timber – 5000 m3, medium timber- 3000 m3, hard timber-1000 m3.

     I think that I must be patient and continue my search for the pre-1956 axe, or maybe not. For as the saying goes “Leave well alone”.